SXSW 2023: THE STARLING GIRL, on Religion, Suppression, and Desire

A quiet triumph

Writer/Director Laurel Parmet makes her feature debut with The Starling Girl, a vulnerable and personal story of a young woman growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household in Kentucky who develops feelings for her youth pastor. Taking a deeply naturalistic approach without any kind of narration or judgment of the characters, Parmet takes us on a troubling and pulse-pounding experience through the world of modern fundamentalism in one small community. Jem (Eliza Scanlen) is a devout 17 year old. She’s the oldest of several children, and her father Paul (Jimmi Simpson) was a singer/songwriter before he found Jesus and started a family. Youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman) is the son of the preacher, recently returned from Puerto Rico with some different/rebellious ideas and marital struggles. The tension that will brew amidst this mix of main characters is palpable, even if The Starling Girl is far more of a drama than it is a thriller.

As a former church youth worker myself, I felt compelled to check this film out. And through that lens, I can tell you my takeaways of seeing an inappropriate relationship begin to form between spiritual leader and floundering and malleable young woman had me going “nope nope nope, you are immediately fired, this is why we do background checks and have safety policies and multiple adults present”. But that’s me bringing my personal lens. Parmet had no such lens and instead simply depicts an incredibly nuanced, troubling, and all too common relationship forming and all of the fallout it brings with it.

There’s an extreme authenticity to this which feels like Parmet had to do a lot of research around or had personal experience with. I personally felt the theological struggles of the different characters trying to fit their own desires and mental and physical needs into a repressive and restrictive ideology. The Starling Girl felt like a tale of the dangers of repression in many ways. Jem’s father Paul was able to get sober and start a family, but feels there is no room for music and Jesus in his life. So his music must be excised — to his ultimate detriment. Jem’s constantly praying away the “evil” of her sexual desires, but she’s also a regular old teenager with sexuality baked into her humanity. Owen is undoubtedly the character I personally struggle to have sympathy for as he manipulates Jem’s vulnerability. But Parmet isn’t telling the story of a predator or at least isn’t interested in entirely condemning Owen so much as getting into the nuance of why inappropriate relationships like this seem to happen so often in our culture. It’s a brave role for Pullman to take on.

As humans are wont to do, our characters largely fail in their attempts to suppress their more base needs and desires. They cling desperately to a rigid religion to provide structure and rules, but they’re simply unable to repress and conform. Their faith community on the surface provides a place of belonging. A place to dance to the Lord and sing and have cookouts. But stray from the pack and retribution will be harsh, public, and traumatic for all. Parmet crafts a subtle and complex tale that puts us intimately in the middle of our characters’ lives and allows us to watch their mistakes and crossed-lines, as well as their realizations and growth. The Starling Girl is authentic and subtle, troubling and triumphant. It’s quietly one of the best films SXSW 2023 had to offer.

And I’m Out.

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